The Malevolent Matriarch
It didn’t take long to realize something was wrong with great gramma Orah. Her words seemed inappropriately harsh, almost spiteful. She began writing in 1940; still, years later, it was difficult to process her anger. It wasn’t going to be easy reading through 12 years of anger.
Gramma wasn’t kind, and the snippier she got, the higher my systolic rose. Dad had talked about Grammy’s disposition, but I had no idea.
It wasn’t all bad. Orah raised three beautiful daughters (Lalla, Hazel, and Bertha) who were wonderful influences on my father, my sister, and I. In the photo above Orah plays croquet in Hazel’s backyard, in a dress and heels. Although a blurry photo, I believe she is smiling.
While it makes this post a bit longer, I am adding a timeline leading up to July 3, 1940, Orah’s first letter. (The link takes the reader to Cherry Season, the first entry). It helps with perspective (maybe only mine, but I’ll take it).
1893: Orah marries Elmer Hunt Butterfield.
1894: Lillian May Butterfield (not pictured above) born, Wisconsin.
1898: Lalla Marie Butterfield (grandma) born, Marshfield, WI.
1900: Census: Marshfield, WI, family moved to MN.
1901: Sept. 9: Elmer began working for The Soo (railroad), Minneapolis.
1901: Nov. 3: Alfred Josiah Smith, Orah’s father, came to Minneapolis.
1902: Jan 16: J. A. Smith began work at The Soo. (Since there were two men with the same name, our Alfred switched his first and middle names, hence was known as Josiah.)
1902: Sept. 2: Forrest Smith, Orah’s brother, arrived Labor Day.
1902: Hazel dee Helen Butterfield born, Minneapolis; Helen Eliza White, Orah’s mother, passed.
1904: Charles K. Smith, Orah’s brother, passed.
1905-6: Elmer began small diary while living in Minneapolis, with addresses.
1905: Aug. 7: “Pa” (J. A. Smith) began boarding with Elmer and Orah.
1906: Family moved from Minneapolis to Tacoma (girls were 12, 8, and 4).
1908: Bertha Estella Butterfield born, Tacoma, WA.
1910: Family lived at 6209 S. Oakes St., Tacoma, below (1910 census). Si Smith, Orah’s father, was also in residence. (Elmer, Lalla holding Bertha, Lillian in rocker, Josiah.)
1912: Lillian May Butterfield, Orah’s daughter, passed. Tent explained in link below.
1915: Lalla fled, see Why Grandma Cried
1918-1920: Elmer began another diary; mentions Orah’s lavalier.
1919: December 9, moved to 4008 North 24th, Tacoma. (Elmer’s diary)
1920: Orah, dressmaker at Department Store, Tacoma.
1921: Lalla married Carl Joseph Geier.
1924: Elmer Butterfield, Orah’s husband, passed.
1929: Rodney Merle Geier, my father, was born.
1931: Family lived at 5922 Park Avenue, Tacoma. Dad on porch.
1930: Family moved to 4133 South L Street, Tacoma.
1939: Bertha married George A. Miller, moved to Port Angeles, WA; Orah, Lalla, and dad moved to K Street. Orah’s letters began while living in the house below.
Still with me? Great. Here we go…
SOUR GRAPES (Cherry Season, Part II)
Nineteen forty had been a pretty good year but cherry season had ended and trouble was brewing. Something was wrong and it showed. The clues came in, one by one.
March 31, 1941
Orah’s doctor found a problem and strongly advised Orah to take care of it, to not let it go.
“I had Lalla take some of my uran down to the Doctor and he called me back and told me that I had quite a lot of sugar in my uran and he told me to take care of it right away…so I am going to try and go tomorrow…”
“…he said if I got busy right away that it would be the right thing to do, but if I let it go that I would have some time with it, so that is what I have staring me in the face But who cares I don’t but just wait until I get down there But I can tell you I do not care much about going.”
She can barely contain her sarcasm.
“Tuesday morning the great day as I have to go to the Doctor and show him all I have I do just love to go, I don’t think, but why should I care…”
She seems angry at the doctor’s diagnosis, that she now has to endure examinations and take care of herself.
“I feel better now than I have for some time, but the girls think I should go as Dr. Herman said I had better go at once, so that is all I have to say.”
Judging by her words, it doesn’t seem that Orah feels good. When writing about household chores, Orah says she is either in the washtub or doing the washing, doesn’t feel up to it, “but what do I care.” Orah’s daughter, Lalla (my grandma) was working full time, had more than a full plate. When dad was three, grandma divorced grandpa. His presence in their lives was minimal at her insistence. As a single mother in the 40s–not the norm–grandma put herself through business school to support the family. Great grandma had become a financial and emotional burden to one already stressed lady.
As often happens, children provide a much needed laugh.
April 1, 1941
“Well to day is the first of April and Rodney fool me good this morning he said the cat had done some thing on the back porch so I went to see and then he said April fool and he laughted good.”
It brought immeasurable joy to read this, knowing my father, at 11, was responsible for making Orah laugh. Priceless. Her mirth didn’t last long, though. Orah got her knickers in a knot over money, the first of many such arguments between her and Lalla.
April 2, 1941
“And I can tell you I am mad this morning I asked Lalla for some money and she said I don’t know wheither I can give you any or not as I have to buy this and that she alway has some thing to say, if I ever get my pension I will show her a thing or too.”
I wonder what she was going to show grandma, just how she would put her in her place. Orah’s tone was vindictive, confirming dad’s prior descriptions. I marvel over her ability to make my blood boil seventy six years later. I became protective of my father and grandmother, both long gone.
April 9, 1941
Newly diagnosed with health issues, right out of the gate Orah’s first sentence reveals anger at Lalla. This was grandma’s fault?
“I just came home from the Doctor and he said I had to go to the Hospital for 4 or 5 days what do you think about that, that will give Lalla some thing to think about, what do you thing.”
She proceeds to doom and gloom with a narcissistic twist.
“I think the world is comming to an end, but I am glad I know now” and “Now Bertha you do not have to worry at all I will be all right.”
The world ending? Give Lalla something to think about? I began to wonder about narcissism.
We’ll never know, of course, but her choice of words gives clues to what both dad and Lalla endured, and before that, what Orah endured. And that, really, is what I am after.
Understanding. I absolutely need to if I am to process and preserve our story through her letters.
If you haven’t read Why Grandma Cried, I urge you to take a look (not only was this my very first blog post, but it features a 100-year-old letter my great grandfather wrote to Lalla, published 100 years later, to the day, on March 20, 2015. I’d switched themes and re-posted it a few weeks later reflecting the publishing date of May). The events in this post are what I believe most shaped Orah’s disposition. I don’t know that I would escape unscathed, either.
When dad talked about his grandmother, he grew somber and withdrawn. Knowing that Orah’s parenting skills affected him throughout his life–to know now how she felt while writing to Bertha–is unsettling. Reading the anger in her heart breaks mine.
NEXT: As Orah’s life was about to take a turn, the outbursts increased as did the name-calling, hurting the ones she loved most. Life had become sour grapes. If nothing dad was resourceful; he found a way to avoid “the gray-haired one.” Stay tuned.